Few of us have failed to notice the anniversary of the time when our world screeched to a halt, and we entered a time like none living had ever experienced before. Like so many, I know the day my world changed. I was supposed to go to Del’s funeral (now rescheduled to be virtual), but flying to Seattle for a gathering of a couple hundred wise old men seemed like a bad idea. So honoring his outdoor memories, I went hiking instead. The morning was normal. But as we got flashes of signal, we watched the NBA cancel the season and the stock market fall hard and fast. A nurse with her daughter took our picture at the summit, and we wondered if we should, you know, be worried? We had pizza and beer at a great restaurant on our way home (with the nurse and her daughter). By the time I got home, we got word that school was cancelled for two weeks and no one was going back to the office for now.
You know the rest. We worked from home. The kids played SO MANY VIDEO GAMES. I watched the Great British Baking show and was inspired to bake all the things. Strange things became scarce. Yes, flour and toilet paper, but fencing was hard to get and bicycles and snowshoes are still unobtanium. I had reflected, in the before times, on how impossible it seemed that my life might ever slow enough (this side of senility) to have quiet and boredom and leisure for activities. But I played through “Breath of the Wild” on the bed with my kids by my side. I read books. I exercised. I had social Zoom calls on top of hours and hours of work video conferences.
With the warming of the year and the dropping of infection rates, it seemed possible the worst might be over. If the trends stayed good, if we stayed careful, this might be unlocking. We went camping, had backyard fires, hiked, ate in outdoor seating and felt downright Mediterranean. How odd it is, but I feel nostalgic for the freedom and folks of the summer of 2020.
And then there was the catastrophe of the holidays. Watching it coming, we locked down hard again in November, removing those little eases we’d added over the summer. I sent Christmas card after Christmas card, in the darkest part of year and pandemic, exhorting hope and the inevitable waning of winter and plague. I wrote those words mostly for myself. In the cold stillness of winter, two of my uncles died. They did not die of COVID, but it prevented me from reconnecting with my family and introducing my children to a bevy of aunts, uncles and cousins they haven’t seen in years. I find myself wondering if COVID will fragment my extended family, like an iceberg breaking apart on its way to melting.
Now in this year mark, I am caught on the juxtaposition between hope and vast weariness. The hope is clear: we have multiple vaccines. They are extremely effective. The ability to manufacture and distribute them is improving. I will be vaccinated this year. My parents and mother-in-law are already in progress. The children will eventually go to school wearing pants. I will eventually go to an office. There will be a resumption of a new life that includes people and places. At the same time, I am so direly weary of everything it is safe to do where I am. My creativity to “make things fun” is entirely sapped. I love reading, and watching funny tv shows, and going on hikes in the Fells, and making dinners and writing letters to distant friends. I’ve come to love watercolors, and the bleed of the first stroke against wet paper. I like sleeping in and playing video games. But it seems like all these activities have been so overused that they hardly register. My husband brings me breakfast in bed every morning for a year now, but I swear I can hear “I Got You Babe” to the infinitely familiar sound of heavy-laden feet on the stairs.
Still, I hold the gift of this moment. So many have lost so much, that it is hard to both reflect on the deep and difficult challenges of the year. “I still have a job and a home” we tell ourselves. “No one I love has died of COVID … yet” we barely dare say aloud. We know better than to think we are uniquely struggling. But it also seems unwisely unkind to turn this into a “count your blessings” moment. But in all our lives, there have been dire challenges and there have been little blossoms of delight that could never have grown in the thick forests of our lives as they were.
For me, it has been fascinating to learn what I would do if I weren’t so damn busy all the time. The truth is, I am still exhausted. But it’s a different exhausted. I’ve laid down almost everything that was optional (my life has had some particular challenges), and I still do not want to tackle the items in my email inbox. I’m waiting to see if I start to recover. If I resume having “brilliant” ideas and kicking things off and volunteering for things. Or if perhaps that time in my life has now past, if not for good then for longer than a year. I am also quite surprised by what has filled the rooms of my mind dedicated to those things I long for. I would have said, before, books and music and cooking. I have read a lot. I have played almost no music (perhaps because there are always 3 other people in the house? Or maybe because I am good enough at music that improving seems daunting, especially with no audience to play for?). I am ready to not cook again for like several months. Or a week. Whatever.
But the art took me entirely by surprise. In retrospect, I can kind of see where it came from. The longing to make something beautiful, distinct and individual. The love of colors. The obsession with paper and pens. But I have spent forty(cough) years knowing that I was TERRIBLE at art and couldn’t even draw a compelling stick figure. This is true, by the way. But in the vaccuum of time and life, on a run, I was inspired to think, “I wonder how much I could improve if I tried”. And then I ordered pencils and paper and a book from Amazon. And on a July morning I sat down to draw my first picture. It was terrible. But it has been such a great consolation. My eyes are seeing things differently. When my mind wanders, it is to colors and shapes and picking apart the problems of “how do I” and “I wonder if”. I’ve gone from uncertain and fumbling, to practiced. And for the person who loves people – when I post my art (good, bad and indifferent) my friends without fail comment on what they like, what they see. They connect with me. Recently, I’ve gotten to a point where people would even accept a picture for their wall, and it feels a little bit like it did when I could feed them, and place a delicious meal made with my hands in front of them and invite them to eat until satiated.
In this year, I have come to know my home and neighborhood with a passionate intimacy not available to the commuter. Every view from every window, every house on every stroll that emerges from my door is known and observed. I have spent hours with cats on my laps, pushing my hands off the keyboard with their assertive love. I have named the rabbits that live in my back yard and eat the flowers. There has been a rootedness, and space never before known.
As the uncertainties of our path out of pandemic begin to clear, and the road can be seen further ahead, we consider what it is we will do when we are vaccinated, when our friends are too. We think about how wondrous strange (and scary?) it will be to sit at table with people we have hardly seen in a year and have upcoming vacations to talk about. But I have come to this conclusion: we will never return to where we were before. Time never flows back, but usually we are in the boat being pulled along. Now we have walked along these half-frozen shores, and we will re-embark in a strange land that looks something like the one we left, but also entirely different. There will, for example, be 800k fewer Americans than there would have been (the half million who have died so far, and the 300k babies who were not born this year). There will be masks. There will be the work from home. There will be a long shadow of fear and caution. There will be relationships set adrift, and ones set on fire by the anger of the “you’re paranoid and living in fear” vs. the “you are irresponsible for yourself and society”.
So here’s to the memory of what we have sacrificed, lost and had taken from us. Here’s to the small consolations we’ve gained in the darkness. And here’s to a coming of spring, a new day, and a world ready to be reborn.